A PRINCIPAL solicitor who took money from a dead woman's estate to pay mounting bills at his law firm, could have his name struck off the roll kept by the Supreme Court of NSW.
David Vincent Clifton set up Clifton Legal with offices in Armidale and Tenterfield, but was left in a poor financial position after he closed the latter branch and was forced to pay out long service leave to former employees.
He was found guilty of professional misconduct last week, after the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal found he had given directions to his bookkeeper to create fake tax invoices to pay off his debts in 2018, using money from the late Jean Loveday Tregurtha's Estate.
In his submissions to the court he said he had become extremely anxious and felt sick about the cash flow problems in the practice.
"I was not getting paid at the time because there were not enough funds in the account to pay me," he said.
"Also, as I have stated above, this meant that I could not pay our mortgage or credit card bills.
"I thought that the practice was in serious risk of being wound up."
Clifton once owned a Toyota dealership in Tamworth and was left with significant tax debts when he sold it. Eventually the bank foreclosed on the family home and he said that he was scared of a "repeat of the disaster".
All up, about $51,300 was taken from trust moneys, including about $32,000 from the Tregurtha Estate, across seven transactions to pay the Australian Tax Office, for web maintenance, rent, wages and credit card debts.
While the money was eventually paid back, the Tribunal found it would be appropriate to recommend to remove Clifton's name from the roll.
"In coming to this decision we find that Mr Clifton is not currently fit to practise and that this is likely to be the case indefinitely," it said.
"This is never an easy finding to make and we have not found it easy in this instance.
"However, to come to a different view, amongst other factors, we would first need to be certain that Mr Clifton truly understands the error of his ways ... and we are not satisfied that this is the case."
Correction and apology: An earlier version of this article said David Vincent Clifton, of Clifton Legal, had been struck off the roll of solicitors. This was incorrect. While the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal had recommended that he be struck off, it has no power to make such an order. It is for the NSW Court of Appeal to determine whether to do so or not, and that has not yet occurred. Mr Clifton remains entitled to practise as a solicitor pending the Court of Appeal's decision.
The article also incorrectly reported the amount of trust funds Mr Clifton had used to pay various expenses and debts. The total amount was around $51,300, rather than $83,300 as reported.
The Northern Daily Leader apologises to Mr Clifton for the errors.